The Heroism of Pakistani Poetry

A review essay by Larry Smythe*

Your Essence, Martyr: Pakistani Elegies
ed. Alamgir Hashmi (Translations by Faruq Hassan, Rafey Habib, and David Matthews)
Whistler, B. C./Islamabad, Pakistan: Plainview Imprint plainviewimprint@yahoo.com, 2011. 86 pages. $19.95. Paperback. ISBN #978-9699670008.

Athol Fugard, South African playwright and novelist, mused in 1980’s: “a writer is to a certain extent part of the conscience of a society.” (People, August 9, 1982. Vol. 18, No. 6 <http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20082842,00.html>) Serious writers and artists have long known that their calling is greater than for mere entertainment.  For some time now, the news out of Pakistan has the world concerned with its struggles for peace and order. Knowledge of its literature and fine arts, as such, gets pushed to the background. That country, in fact, is blessed with fine contemporary writers and artists, who draw upon a rich and ancient cultural heritage. The poets write in different languages and some of them are well-known to Western audiences. (See, for example, the ReaderComments:<http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0609/Obama_a_fan_of_the_great_Urdu_poets.html>) Among its many languages, Urdu poetry and poets of the Subcontinent have had a special place. Cultivated in the courtly tradition for a few centuries, and patronized by royalty at the origins, this poetic tradition has added more dimensions than the generally romantic verses quoted around at random would suggest.

While this book of English translations from the original Urdu texts educates one about modern Urdu poetry, the poems here represent sophisticated lyrical genres as well as  passionate contemporary voices. The poems selected by the editor were written in the late 1970’s by various poets, in Urdu, following the hanging of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by the military regime of the time. The original handwritten poems were carried from one place to another, or read out from memory.  After an initial compilation of some Urdu poems by the poet Saleem Shahid was banned, any sustained print for these was made impossible by the undemocratic rulers of Pakistan. However, those texts conserved through the decades have now been put together in this first translation. Mostly, these are elegies for a national leader, and for a lost vision of democratic culture and prized values. Expert translation in each case conveys the quality of style and the tenor of the composition. Fahmida Riaz asks of her tender-aged son to “Watch it, etch it on your eyes” (“Nazam”) lest the nightmarish experience of his mother should be forgotten by future generations.

Beyond the needs of personal and collective memory, there is Josh Malihabadi’s bold questioning:

How long will these sons of ignorance, lords deformed by nature,
Be put over me as my rulers and masters?

Qateel Shifai puts the subject on a different plane altogether, at once historical and sacred, one from which to speak to all humanity:

They rise up against him, who resurrects the dead.
In every age we have crucified Jesus.

Beyond loss and pain, still, there is the hope to rebuild, as in Zaheer Kashmiri’s “A Poem”:

But we suspect behind the prison wall
Tomorrow’s lamp still burns.

Even Saleem Shahid’s morose and plaintive verses are rounded off with renewed determination:

Here the bird gets ready to take wing,
Many horizons await his flight.
(“A Poem”)

And we believe with him as the poetic form affects a new reality in everyday language without completely breaking away from past convention. The main Urdu traditions of the ghazal and nazam, as well as the solo couplet and qit’a, are shown here to be potent vehicles of the new sensibility. Some conventions of the Urdu marsiya (elegy), too, are echoed. Yet, these poems assure a sensitive focus on a secular subject, and on the here and now, when Pakistan turns another page in its checkered history.

The seventy or so poems in this volume appear to have found their best translators in English. The translators and the editor are well-respected scholars and translators, who worked from the original texts; at least three of them are also poets in their own right. It is noteworthy that all four are based in different continents (viz., Asia, North America, and Europe) and have together put their expertise to a most fruitful use, with excellent results. Several among the poets have given readings or lived for a while in North America particularly during the years of military repression of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The original samizdat nature of the work presented is emphasized: it is the individual poem that commands attention, and has a chance to be remembered. Thus, the usual indices and biographies of poets are not included, although the distinguished authors of these poems would make a veritable who’s who of South Asian (Urdu) poetry; Hamed Jilani, Javed Shaheen, Ahmad Faraz, Kishwar Naheed, Ahmed Waheed Akhter, Salaam Bin Razzaq, Shohrat Bokhari, Farigh Bukhari, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, to name only a few. The annotations that are provided do help better-informed reading. The forms vary, but throughout it is the poetry of courage, conviction, and compassion, with a will toward a better society. As the editor’s Preface has it, “Your Essence, Martyr is the heart’s cry, a book of poems that have become a part of our lives since these were written…and read out in small private gatherings in homes or whispered to one another in cafes…Whatever the means…the work has survived and lives on as a soulful example of the deed against tyranny.”  So it does, heroically, poem after poem. At a time when political and civil liberties, including normal artistic freedoms, were imperiled, poetry (in all major languages) in Pakistan embodied and championed the democratic spirit. A 1979 letter by Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the late Z. A. Bhutto and herself Pakistan’s Prime Minister in the 1990’s who was assassinated later, has been  printed on the final page. In it she recognizes that “it is the poets who reflect in full measure the entire spectrum of human responses”.  While Your Essence, Martyr is exemplary as responsible art, it is a book of poems/translations that is a special pleasure even for the compulsive reader.

*This review essay draws on an earlier short review published by the author in World Literature Today.

About the author: Larry Smythe, Santa Barbara, California, researches and writes on Asian and North American topics. Current research projects with reference to literary culture include South Asia and the South Pacific islands.

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